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, 6 (10), e25656

Cosmetics as a Feature of the Extended Human Phenotype: Modulation of the Perception of Biologically Important Facial Signals


Cosmetics as a Feature of the Extended Human Phenotype: Modulation of the Perception of Biologically Important Facial Signals

Nancy L Etcoff et al. PLoS One.


Research on the perception of faces has focused on the size, shape, and configuration of inherited features or the biological phenotype, and largely ignored the effects of adornment, or the extended phenotype. Research on the evolution of signaling has shown that animals frequently alter visual features, including color cues, to attract, intimidate or protect themselves from conspecifics. Humans engage in conscious manipulation of visual signals using cultural tools in real time rather than genetic changes over evolutionary time. Here, we investigate one tool, the use of color cosmetics. In two studies, we asked viewers to rate the same female faces with or without color cosmetics, and we varied the style of makeup from minimal (natural), to moderate (professional), to dramatic (glamorous). Each look provided increasing luminance contrast between the facial features and surrounding skin. Faces were shown for 250 ms or for unlimited inspection time, and subjects rated them for attractiveness, competence, likeability and trustworthiness. At 250 ms, cosmetics had significant positive effects on all outcomes. Length of inspection time did not change the effect for competence or attractiveness. However, with longer inspection time, the effect of cosmetics on likability and trust varied by specific makeup looks, indicating that cosmetics could impact automatic and deliberative judgments differently. The results suggest that cosmetics can create supernormal facial stimuli, and that one way they may do so is by exaggerating cues to sexual dimorphism. Our results provide evidence that judgments of facial trustworthiness and attractiveness are at least partially separable, that beauty has a significant positive effect on judgment of competence, a universal dimension of social cognition, but has a more nuanced effect on the other universal dimension of social warmth, and that the extended phenotype significantly influences perception of biologically important signals at first glance and at longer inspection.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have read the journal's policy and have the following conflicts: this study was funded by P&G Beauty and Grooming, where SAV is employed as a Principal Scientist. This does not alter the authors' adherence to all the PLoS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Models without makeup and with natural, professional and glamorous makeup.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Means for the no makeup, natural and glamorous looks at 250 ms, and unlimited inspection times.

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